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connect the dots and draw a different picture up

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“I just really don't understand why I'm here, I mean that keyboard was a perfectly reasonable price.  A thousand bucks for a CUSTOMIZABLE KEYBOARD, c'mon, Rhodey, you can't tell me you'd pass that up!”

It’s not as bad as, say, a toddler throwing a fit as their parent drags them through the mall, but it’s not exactly quiet or hard to miss.  Pepper can’t help but glance up from the Margaret Atwood book she’s reading but once she does, she knows she can’t leave poor Rhodey to that.

So she closes the book, grabs her coffee, and approaches her apparently-harangued friend.  “What’s the issue here?” she asks, using her smoothing-it-over customer service voice.

“I was just escorting His Highness here over to his job training session at Sharper Images,” says Rhodey, sarcastic as ever.  The man who had been so loud has crossed his hands over his chest and is now pouting - maybe the toddler comparison hadn’t been that off after all.  Of course Pepper recognizes him; she’d have to be utterly oblivious not to.  Tony Stark’s face has been periodically featured on the local news for as long as she’s lived here, since everyone loves to watch spoiled rich children’s illegal escapades.  She’s even fitted him for a suit or two in the past, and while the bragging rights were nice, they hardly made up for the hours she’d spent dealing with this adult child.  And now here he was again.  For a job training session?

Tony must have caught the quizzical look on her face, because he’s off again, talking so fast that she can hardly keep up.  “Apparently I’m here to, what was it?  Learn the value of a well-earned dollar?  I think those were Dad’s words.  Rhodey, you probably remember the lecture better than I do, I was busy calculating how long it would take me to rig the sprinkler in front of Dad’s room so it’ll go off every morning when he leaves.  He’s pissy because I don’t do a damn thing to ‘contribute to the family’ which, I’d like to see him program anything close to JARVIS, and what thanks do I get for that?  None at all.  You’re welcome for making your daily life easier, Dad.  I’m sorry the thousand-dollar customizable keyboard wasn’t even more on sale!”

“When does your training session start?” Pepper asks, trying not to let how overwhelmed she is by his tangent show on her face.

“One,” says Rhodey, while Tony goes back to sulking.

Pepper checks her watch and stifles a sigh.  “That gives us enough time for a tour,” she offers, raising her eyebrows in a way that she hopes Rhodey will understand to mean maybe feeling like part of the gang will help mellow him out somehow, even though she assumes that’s wishful thinking.

Rhodey laughs a bit, and nods.  “All right, this way, your highness,” he says, and all Tony does to respond to the nickname is look mildly miffed.  Rhodey ignores him, and points to the bakery that’s marked in jaunty wobbling letters as Corner Bakery Cafe.  “Over there is where you can get the best cookies ever, the end.  It’s a chain but that doesn’t even matter, it’s so damn good.  Volstagg probably puts something magic in them.”

“That’s not a corner,” is Tony’s only comment.  Which, it’s not, it’s sandwiched between a Sbarro’s and a McDonald’s, and Pepper’s always thought the name was a bit silly.

But it’s not worth commenting on, really, so instead she turns her attention to the opposite side of the food court, pointing and nodding and switching to her all-business voice.  “Over there at MaggieMoo’s, see the girl working?”

“Yes,” Tony says, like it’s obvious.  (It is.  Why wouldn’t he see her?)

“That’s Jemma,” Pepper continues.  “She will mix up the weirdest, most delicious ice cream cone for you, but you are under no circumstances allowed to even think about flirting with her.  Understand?”

“I don’t know where this accusation’s coming from,” replies Tony, “I didn’t hit on you and you’re, well, you’re not quite my type but you’re nothing to sneeze at, definitely.  She’s not really my type either.  Being honest, I tend to prefer blondes.  I am a gentleman.”

Pepper rolls her eyes.  Of course that’s his reaction.  “I’m still issuing the warning,” she says.   From what she knows, Tony Stark is the sort to flirt with anyone and anything if the mood strikes, and besides.  “Don’t hit on Jemma Simmons” is basically a rule around here.

Rhodey’s watched the entire exchange with an amused expression, and once they’ve stopped he gestures for Tony to follow him out of the food court.  Pepper joins them; hell, she doesn’t have anything better to do.

Rhodey takes a left out of the food court, gesturing to the Sephora that’s located just outside.  “Bucky works there.  He, uh...well, ask Steve and Natasha about Bucky if you get curious.”

“We’ll point them out in a minute,” Pepper adds, hurrying them along before Tony starts asking too many more questions (he’s got a look on his face like he might).

“Teavana next to that, if you feel like paying entirely too much for fancy teas.”  Rhodey says this so sarcastically that Pepper laughs, both at the entirely-true comment and at the mental image of this spoiled playboy drinking tea.  He practically sweats coffee.  “And next door, the hipster mecca,” he says, indicating a slightly out-of-place-looking bookstore called Pages.  “Ian works there, and they have a pretty decent tech section actually.  If you ever feel like deigning to set foot there.”  He grins.

“And across the way is our Big 5 Sporting Goods,” Pepper takes over.  “That’s Sif and Melinda in there.  Neither of them will take any shit, but Sif will be cooler about it.”

“Now, pay attention to this next part, it’ll be relevant to your dumb ass.  That’s the security office there.”  Rhodey points across the way, where a nondescript grey front has only a no-nonsnse sign reading SECURITY on its door to give any hint as to its purpose.  “Nick Fury is the head, but he’s not usually out on the floor.  Officers Coulson and Hill are.  Hill’s not too bad, she used to be a real cop but then she got hurt and had to retire, so she doesn’t blow things too out of proportion.  But Coulson…”

“Coulson takes his job very seriously,” Pepper declares, letting that sink in for a moment before she smirks and adds, “that’s why his forehead is so big.  It’s full of secrets.”

“Oh my god, was that a Mean Girls reference?  Marry me.”  Tony looks entirely serious for a moment.

Pepper raises an eyebrow, looking mildly amused.  “Anyway, let’s take the tour downstairs,” she declares, heading in the direction of the escalator and expecting the boys to follow.

Once they reach the bottom of the escalator, the first thing Pepper sees is Steve and Natasha in the Gap windows, arranging the display.  Steve is adjusting the clothes on the mannequins and Natasha is hanging an obnoxiously brightly colored sign.  Steve sees them first and waves, smiling in his familiar all-American way.  Natasha’s smile is subtler, more of a smirk really, but she doesn’t look unhappy to see them, anyway.

“Hey, you two,” Pepper greets them, nodding amiably before gesturing to the newcomer.  “This is Tony.  He’s going to be working at Sharper Image.”

“Hi, Tony!” Steve grins and waves.  Natasha, unsurprisingly, just looks him over, not unlike a feral cat sizing up a possible threat.  Tony nudges Rhodey and mutters, “Okay, I lied earlier.  I’m totally into redheads.”

Of course Pepper hears that, but like hell she’ll say anything.  Besides, she knows that if Natasha heard herself and was bothered, she would take care of the situation herself.  Instead, she waves goodbye and leads the others to the left.

“Over in the Sunglass Hut is Heimdall, he keeps an eye on everything that happens around here,” she declares.  “Bath and Body Works, Claire’s, the art store… ah.”  She pauses toward the end of the corridor and smirks.  “And there’s Hot Topic.”

“The original goth boy works there,” chimes in Rhodey.  “Loki.  He’s a real basket case, daddy issues out the ass.  Thinks he’s gonna rule the world someday.  Basically, if you don’t have to talk to him, don’t.  Word is, he went to one of those...special high schools.”

“Special like how? Like, gifted and talented special? I went to one of those, you know,” says Tony. “And I’m totally gonna rule the world someday, so maybe he and I could find some common ground. Y’know, co-rulership.”

“Maybe ‘alternative’ would be a better word,” Pepper frets, equally terrified by Tony’s ego and by the thought of a world where Tony and Loki could get along for long enough to co-rule anything.  (That isn’t this world, or any other one that makes logical sense, but it’s still a frightening thought.)

Tony looks only mildly disappointed.  “Fine.  I’ll just have to settle for being the smartest person in the building, again.”

“Glad to know your ego’s intact,” Rhodey snarks.

“The hair salon is in the corner there,” Pepper continues, “Kohl’s, David’s Bridal, Fuego, just your usual collection of stores.  Fuego is where you’ll find Clint, he’s all right.”

Rhodey shrugs.  “Kind of an enigma.  Nice enough, but probably a secret agent or something.  Keeps to himself.  RadioShack’s over there, and...oh.”  He says this as they all turn to look at Victoria’s Secret, where an ethereal-looking redheaded woman is hanging about the entrance.  Seeming to feel the eyes on her, she smiles enticingly at them and makes blatant bedroom eyes at Tony.

“NO!” says Rhodey, losing his cool for the first time as he grabs Tony’s arm to keep him from walking over to her.  “I know you like redheads, man, but Lorelei is bad news, seriously.  That’s a no-fly zone!”

“How bad can she be?” Tony asks, because it’s not like Rhodey isn’t aware of some of his more… interesting former flames.

“You have to trust me on this.  Do not do that.”  Rhodey sounds more like he’s offering someone advice about how to navigate a battlefield than warning them away from a date, but Pepper knows how serious this is.

“Fine.”  Tony only drags the word out a little bit, sighing like a kid who’s been denied another hour of video games.

As if trying to distract him, Rhodey pulls him along, saying “And there’s middle-aged women’s clothing, and here’s a whole store full of science!  You like science, Tony.”

“You’re being patronizing,” says Tony, “but you’re right, I do like science.  Maybe more than redheads.  Or brunettes,” he adds, catching a glimpse of the short, nerdy-looking woman manning the inside of the store.

“That’s Jane,” Pepper says with a placid smile, “and across the foyer  we have the chocolate store on one side and the Disney Store, where Jane’s very tall ex-quarterback boyfriend Thor works, on the other.”

Tony, seeing the enormous Thor for himself (at the moment, engaged in a swordfight with two very enthusiastic children), swallows and nods.  “Point taken.”

“Over here, a bunch of useless stores, candles and phones and shit, and there’s Sharon in Charlotte Russe!”  Seeing him wave, the blonde woman inside smiles and waves back.  “Don’t hit on her either,” he adds, “she can hit a target from three hundred yards away.  And Darcy’s over there in FYE.”

“Can I hit on her?” asks Tony, clearly only partially serious.

“If you want,” Pepper shrugs.  “She’ll play along, as long as you’re not an asshole.”  

“GameStop and the arcade are down there,” Rhodey says.  “Sometimes they have tournaments, and Hogun kicks everyone’s ass but it’s a good time.  Do not go anywhere near the weed store though.  Raina’s nuts, and I mean nuts.”

“It’s not actually called the weed store, is it?  That seems remarkably unsubtle.”

“No, but…”  Pepper shrugs sheepishly in that way she only rarely  deigns to do.  “The thing is, nobody remembers the real name, because everyone knows exactly what it is.”

Tony nods.  “Ah.  Fair enough, duly noted.”

“That’s about it for down here. Back upstairs,” says Rhodey, herding Tony back towards the escalator.

Once they’ve arrived at the second floor once again, Pepper leads them back toward the center of the mall.  “Foot Locker, that’s where Hogun of the aforementioned gaming tournaments works, and across the way is Abercrombie and Fitch, where his good friend  Fandral works.  Fandral is the quintessential Abercrombie boy.  I think he actually modeled for them once or twice.”

“You don’t say?  I’m sure we’ve already seen each other in various states of undress then.”

Pepper blinks in confusion a few times, shakes her head, and presses on.  “Men’s Wearhouse, on that side, then on this side there’s Build-A-Bear, Mike’s in there and he’s kind of shy but really nice.  Then there’s candy and women’s clothes, oh, and the Apple Store.   Skye and Fitz are there; they’re nice kids, but don’t mess with them too much, please.  Skye’s got a mouth on her and Fitz will just get passive-aggressive.”

Tony makes an exaggerated face of dismay.  “Not passive-aggressive, oh no!”

“Yeah, but just wait.  His passive-aggression means shitty wi-fi for everyone until he gets an apology,” replies Rhodey.  Tony looks slightly chagrined, but only slightly.

“The last woman you’re not allowed to hit on, ever, is Victoria in the jewelry store,” Pepper declares, waving across the corridor.  “Victoria can kill you with her pinky.”

“Is that...literal?”  Tony looks slightly unsettled, which pleases Pepper.

“Bruce in the watch store is very nice, though,” she continues, altogether ignoring his question.  “You can get your souvenir knives and your board games right over there, and that, gentlemen, concludes our tour.  This is where I leave you.” With a nod at the Nordstrom entrance. “If you’ve got any more questions, I’m in designer women’s now with Maya, or if you’re downstairs, Trip’s in young men’s.  He’s very helpful too.”

As she walks away briskly, she hears Tony say, “Okay, but this isn’t really, like, an all-day gig, is it?  Because I got stuff to do that doesn’t involve being trapped in here all day.  I get bored if I’m stationary too long, I’m like a rat.  I gotta, y’know, solve mazes.  I don’t see anything even vaguely mazelike here.”